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Open for Debate

Which crisis of trust?

24 February 2020

The UK Labour Party’s leadership contest is well underway after heavy defeat in the 2019 General Election. There is nothing close to consensus within the Party about why things went wrong, and still very little agreement on the most high-profile political issues. Members could be forgiven, then, for taking solace in one area of apparent agreement among the leadership candidates: Labour must respond to a crisis of trust in the party.

This theme of a crisis of trust in politics has repeatedly surfaced in recent decades in popular and academic discourse. Concerns about public trust have been prompted by, to choose just a few examples, MPs expenses scandals, the fallibility of electoral polling, the shady “investigative” methods of the tabloid press, Michael Gove’s exhaustion with “experts”, and dodgy claims about the benefits of Brexit bussed around by Boris Johnson.

But agreement on this political issue requires agreement on what exactly the crisis of trust is. The problem is that there is no one, single, discrete problem of trust in public life. “Trust in politics” is one of those electioneering slogans that has the virtue of appearing univocal, while being slippery enough in its ambiguity to mean whatever you want it to mean to whomever you are talking to.

Take for example complaints about the decline of what philosophers sometimes call epistemic trust. Epistemic trust is the kind of trust we extend to another when we take the fact that they have told us something as a reason to believe it. This is the kind of trust we often extend, for instance, to doctors; if I cannot trust what my doctor tells me about my symptoms, then she probably can’t help me. Concerns about epistemic trust in public life are usually prompted by widespread lack of confidence in sources of political information: pollsters, news media, and politicians themselves. In this vein, many moral philosophers, epistemologists, and philosophers of language have worried in recent years about the proliferation of fake news online, particularly on social media.

The effect of such things can be an erosion of confidence in the epistemic standards of these information sources, and a future reluctance to take information at face value. The problem that emerges here is, I believe, less a matter of citizen inability to distinguish fact from fiction, as some have suggested, but more a matter of citizen apathy. The less I trust, say, the BBC, the more likely I am to feel that I cannot make any informed political decisions for myself, and the more alienated I will feel from democratic processes.

But not all problems of public trust look like this. Sometimes trust is practical rather than epistemic. Practical trust, unlike its epistemic variant, is a kind of confidence that a person will act in a certain way, and a confidence that allows us to submit to certain vulnerabilities we would otherwise avoid. Thus, for example, it is thanks to trust in the kindness of a friend that I am willing to divulge private information about personal and sensitive matters.

When we apply this distinction to the perceived crisis of public trust, in turns out that the most familiar lack of trust towards politicians is a lack of practical, not epistemic, trust: the commonly held view that politicians cannot be trusted to fulfil their promises. This form of the crisis of trust is most familiar because it is nothing new. There was no halcyon age of political faith in which voters tended to believe that politicians would deliver on their campaign commitments. It also doesn’t seem to explain Labour’s problem, for this kind of distrust appears evenly distributed among all parties (“politicians, they’re all the same”).

But what is perhaps more revealing is the current suspicion not that politicians will not do what they tell us they will do, but that they won’t do anything at all. Thus complaints about the trustworthiness of Parliament in response to deadlock over Brexit – stoked, of course, by Boris Johnson’s government – are not just complaints that MPs cannot be trusted to deliver the “popular will”, but also that MPs cannot be trusted to govern effectively. Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” wasn’t just an offer to committed Brexiters, but also an offer to those who felt a more general lack of confidence in the ability of Parliament to Get Anything Done.

In this respect, some of our current lack of trust in politics is down to lack of confidence in the competence of politicians and political institutions. But this is different again from another kind of crisis of trust. Both epistemic and practical trust require confidence in the competence of the person trusted, but they also require confidence in their motivations. This is what distinguishes trust from dependence. Consider the fact that I am not at all certain about the motivations of my bicycle, but I am certain that it can do its job well, and this is enough to depend on it to get to work.

What if the crisis of public trust is a matter of faltering confidence in motivations? This seems to be what is driving those sections of the Labour party focusing on their broken “red wall”, disaffected northern Labour heartlands, Lisa Nandy’s “towns”, left behind by a London-centred electoral campaign that has lost touch with its base. Trust has faded, some will say, because voters think that Labour no longer cares about the values and commitments these same voters once shared with Labour. Such lack of trust is less about being distrustful of Labour, and more about no longer having a home in the party, and perhaps in politics more generally.

There are, in short, too many answers to the question “which crisis of trust?” for the apparent consensus within Labour, and UK politics more generally, to run very deep. And because there are competing interpretations of the problem, there are also competing solutions. Do Labour voters lack confidence in the competence of the party? Then we need strong, professional leadership to restore faith in the party’s ability to win elections and deliver its programme. Or do Labour voters lack confidence in the values of the party? Then the party must get out of the capital and, somehow, connect again with its base.

Whatever answer appeals to us most will doubtless determine what solution we prefer. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Photo by Elvis Bekmanis on Unsplash